From France’s National Front to Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) to the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn in Greece, far-right populists are grabbing the headlines and seem to be on the rise across Europe.
A recent academic study suggests right-wing anti-immigration political parties such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) owe more of their success to the news media than they’d care to admit; that news outlets do far more than just reflect the story.
In seeking to explain the rise of far-right, anti-immigration movements in countries such as Great Britain, many are asking what role the media have played: do such movements and the support that they attract drive media coverage – or is it the other way around?
Take Tommy Robinson, a British far-right agitator who calls himself a warrior for freedom of speech on issues such as migration. When he rails against the supposedly creeping influence of political Islam over UK society, it resonates with certain audiences.
But what came first: his new-found popularity or the media’s coverage of him?
“What turns out to be the case is that journalists know very little about the history of the far right. About the history of the individuals they are arguing with, about their politics or even about how to engage with or challenge their most offensive claims. In the end, they end up being played by the far right.
In the name of public interest, covering such figures “actually ends up being a feeding frenzy … that boosts these figures further and further into public support”, points out Justin Murphy, assistant professor at the University of Southampton.
But should media outlets in a democratic society censor such voices?
“I don’t think that the media should be in the business of making moral decisions about what kind of voices are heard on the media. I don’t think the media is to blame for the rise of Tommy Robinson,” explains Claire Fox, director at the Academy of Ideas.
“Tommy Robinson has opinions which should be heard, argued over, discussed. And that’s not the same as saying that you endorse those opinions. Depriving him of mainstream media coverage just means that he kind of gains a certain mystique, as though his ideas are so frightening that you have to keep them out of the mainstream.”
Beyond the censorship factor, journalists don’t seem to know enough about these groups, according to Richard Seymour, author and commissioning editor of Salvage.
“What turns out to be the case is that journalists know very little about the history of the far right. About the history of the individuals they are arguing with, about their politics or even about how to engage with or challenge their most offensive claims. In the end, they end up being played by the far right.”
So has the coverage of far-right groups made them more popular? Murphy points to his research.
“We found that media coverage is a predictor of public support in future periods, but we did not find any evidence that public support is a predictor of media coverage. So there appears to be a unique causal effect between media coverage of these far right-wing populist parties and their rise in electoral significance.”
“Generally, journalists are relatively inhospitable to extreme, fringe, far-right wing, populist viewpoints. But once those actors do force themselves onto the agenda then there’s a feeding frenzy that occurs. So that’s how I think media and journalists specifically can produce a reality that they actually don’t really want to see,” Murphy says.
With the governing Conservatives divided over Brexit, the opposition Labour Party split over the same issue – and the mostly pro-Brexit tabloid press still pushing its agenda, British politics is already in a messy state.
And when the broadcast media, even with the best of journalistic intentions, put the likes of Tommy Robinson on their air so that they can grill him, they find they cannot do so without giving him the exposure he craves.
They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That is where Britain seems to find itself today. And the news media aren’t just reporting the story. Many times, they have a hand in driving it.
Claire Fox – director, Academy of Ideas
Richard Seymour – author and commissioning editor, Salvage
Justin Murphy – assistant professor, University of Southampton
Source: Al Jazeera